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Syntax Terms and Devices

Syntax Terms and Literary Devices

Diction: Word choice.  Important in conveying tone and style.

Syntax:  Word order.  Syntax is an author’s grammatical structure, his choice of sentence structure and punctuation which leads to a specific effect.  Like diction, syntax is important in conveying tone and style.    

When considering syntax, in addition to the terms below, consider punctuation, emotion expressed by sentence length and shifts in sentence structure. 

Syntax Terms:

Anaphora:  the regular repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of successive phrases or clauses.

We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields and on the streets…. –Churchill

Anastrophe:  a rhetorical term for the inversion of the normal or usual order of the parts of a sentence.  The purpose is rhythm or emphasis or euphony. 

            To market she went. – Virginia Wolf, The Lighthouse

Antithesis: uses a contrast in language (often in parallel structure) to bring out a contrast in ideas.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness….  - Charles Dickens,  A Tale of Two Cities                   

…. not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. – Martin Luther King, Jr. 

            I speak not from ignorance, but from experience. 

Apposition:  the placing of a word or expression beside another of the same grammatical construct so that the second one explains, qualifies or modifies the first.  The second expression is set off by a comma or a colon. 


These are the times that try men’s souls:  The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will in this crisis, shrink from the service of this country… -- Thomas Paine, The Crisis No. 1


The American Flag, a symbol of freedom and democracy, hangs in my classroom.


Asyndeton: consists of omitting conjunctions between words, phrases, or clauses. In a list of items, asyndeton can give the effect of spontaneity, or may suggest that the list is not yet complete.  Often it gives the feeling of fast movement to writing, rather than a list that drags out.


We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardships, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.   – JFK, Inaugural Address


Chiasmus:  a special form of parallelism in which the first clause or phrase is reversed in the second, sometimes repeating the same words. 

And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.  --John F. Kennedy

He smiled happily and joyfully laughed

Epistrophe (also called antistrophe) forms the counterpart to anaphora, because the repetition of the same word or words comes at the end of successive phrases, clauses, or sentences:

And all the night he did nothing but weep Philoclea, sigh Philoclea, and cry out Philoclea. -- Philip Sidney

You will find taking notes helpful in passing this course, completing homework assignments desirable for passing this course, and studying hours on end essential to passing this course.

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child, but when I became a man, I put away childish things.  – First Corinthians

Loose sentence:  The main point comes early in the sentence.  Phrases and subordinate clauses that modify the point follow. 

A car hit him, just as he bent over to tie his shoelaces. 

Hester gazed after him a while, looking with a half-fantastic curiosity to see whether the tender grass of early spring would be blighted beneath him, and show the wavering track of his footsteps, strong and brown, across its cheerful verdure. – Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

Parallelism:  using the same general structure for multiple parts of a sentence, or for multiple sentences, in order to link them all. 

The manor – designed for beauty and grace, built for strength and durability, and located for privacy and safety – was the ideal home for those three children. 

Periodic sentence:  the main idea comes last in the sentence, leaving the reader with a powerful final impression.

Just as he bent over to tie his shoelaces, a car hit him.                   

Despite heavy rain and wind, the plane departed on time. 

Periphrasis or circumlocution:  a rhetorical device in which the author adds in superfluous words and seems to write all around the topic without getting to the point.  Think “beating around the bush” or using 15 words when just one or two would do. 


I have observed that within the time I have been teaching this class, the class-members, in terms of behavior, have been rather well-behaved for teenagers, who have a reputation for being, at times, unruly and argumentative.  


Desist from enumerating your fowl prior to their emergence from the shell. 


Polysyndeton: the use of a conjunction between each word, phrase, or clause (structurally the opposite of asyndeton).  The general feeling of polysyndeton is one of an increasing urgency and power, with an almost hypnotic rhythm.   

They read and studied and wrote and drilled. I laughed and played and talked and flunked.

Syntactic Permutation:  Sentence structures that are extraordinarily complex or involved; they are often difficult for a reader to follow.

Encouraged, however, by this, I wrote and conveyed in the same way to the press several more papers which were equally well approved; and I kept my secret till my small fund of sense for such performances was pretty well exhausted and then I discovered it, when I began to be considered a little more by my brother’s acquaintance and in a manner that did not quite please him, as he thought, probably with reason, that it tended to make me too vain.                                – Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Telegraphic sentence:  a sentence that includes no more than five words.

            The whole town is desolate.  – F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Literary Devices


Alliteration:  repetition of a consonant sound at the beginning of consecutive or nearby words.

            Kissing cousins


            They seized the sarcophagus


Assonance:  Repetition of vowel sounds.

            The silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain ­– Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven


Allusion:  Passing reference, without explicit identification, to a person, place, event or text.  Often the reference is well known.

            That woman looks like Medusa!


Catalog:  A traditional epic device that consists of a long list or inventory.

Chaff, straw, splinters of wood, weeds, and the sea-gluten./Scum, scales of shining rocks, leaves of salt-lettuce, left by the tide. ­-- Walt Whitman, As I Ebbd with the Ocean of Life


Consonance:  repetition of consonant sounds at the ends of words or accented syllables.

            Thrilled me – filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before – Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven



Hyperbole:  a figure of speech using exaggeration, or overstatement, for special effect.

            This book bag weighs a ton!


Imagery:  words that create an image in the reader’s mind

            Auditory imagery appeals to the reader’s sense of hearing

            Olfactory imagery appeals to the reader’s sense of smell

            Gustatory imagery appeals to the reader’s sense of taste

            Tactile imagery appeals to the reader’s sense of touch

            Visual imagery appeals to the reader’s sense of sight

            Thermal imagery appeals to the reader’s sense of temperature

            Kinetic imagery convey a sense of motion


Irony:  A contrast between what is stated and what is meant, or between what is expected to happen and what actually happens.


Verbal Irony: The speaker says one thing, but means another (sarcasm is a form of irony). 

Dramatic Irony: There is a contradiction between what a character thinks and what the reader/audience knows to be true.

Situational Irony: When the opposite of the expected happens. 


Litotes:  understatement, for intensification, by using a word opposite to the condition

            It’s not the smartest idea I ever heard. 


            She was not unattractive. 


Metaphor:  a comparison between two things that are basically dissimilar.


Simile:  a comparison between two unlike things through the specific use of a word of comparison (like, as, than).


Metonymy:  one word or phrase is substituted for another with which it is closely associated.  

Friends, Romans, countrymen!  Lend me your ears!       

The White House answered its critics.                                    

Paradox:  a statement that is apparently self-contradictory or absurd but really contains a possible truth.

Cowards die many times before their deaths.  –Shakespeare              

Success is counted sweetest/ By those who ne’er succeed.  --Emily Dickinson

Personification:  a figure of speech in which something nonhuman is given human qualities. 


Synecdoche:  using a part to refer to a whole.

Can I borrow your wheels?


The hired hands were a hungry looking bunch.

Tone:   A writer’s general attitude to the reader and his subject. 

Understatement:  a device in which the force of a descriptive statement is less than what one would normally expect.  Understatement can be used to highlight the extreme nature of the event or for ironic or humorous effect. 

Whatever his faults, Sir Isaac Newton did have a fairly good mind for science.

To the uninitiated, neurophysiology can be a bit of a challenge.